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9 fresh tips for launching your journalism career

Envisioning a future as a journalist can be overwhelming. The many challenges of the digital world and recent layoffs by well-known companies like The Washington Post, CNN, Gannett and, more recently, NPR, create a sense of uncertainty and anxiety for those entering the field.

“People say journalism is dying,” said Shalini Dore, former Variety’s news features editor, who retired in late March. “(But) it will continue in some form because humans want to know what’s happening around them.”

Here are ways that early-career journalists can be more productive and creative, so they’re more likely to stand out — and love their job.

Journalists are storytellers. When the time comes to tell the story of your professional and educational life, treat it like any other piece.

Dore recommends starting your résumé with the information you want to highlight, just like the lead in a story. It may be a previous internship related to the job you are applying to or a recent course. “If you are straight out of school, and that’s the big deal, then make that your lead,” she said. “Get to the point.”

She also said a résumé should be as clear and compelling as your stories and show your potential employer that you can write. “The writing skill is the No. 1 thing that we are looking for,” Dore said.

To become a reporter and writer, you need inspiration. Be intentional when you read. Build a list of your favorite journalists and stories. Highlight what you like about them — sentences, style, structure — and try to practice it in your writing, said Cyndi Zaweski, a former TV reporter and news anchor for NBC and CBS stations who owns her own marketing company, Ascent Storycraft.

Failing to show enough interest in the job is the worst mistake you can make during an interview, Dore said.

Her practical advice: Get the name of the publication right. Do not refer to Variety as The Hollywood Reporter. And prepare questions for your interviewer. Read a few stories from the publication. Once you’re on the job, “put the hand up for assignments.”

Still, she said people entering the industry should seek balance.

“Don’t work overtime, don’t work through your lunch hour,” Dore said. “Take all of these breaks because they refresh you and you come back and do a better job.”

Also, reach out to journalists you respect and might like to work with one day.

“The people who have helped me the most are the people I look up to the most in journalism,” said Amanda Reed, a writer at Popular Science who is a mentor for people entering the field. “It’s a tough industry, and we can only benefit from helping each other out.

Journalists are often forced to divide their attention between tasks. But multitasking can decrease productivity and increase anxiety.

Working on too many tasks at once can lead professionals to commit mistakes and spend extra time fixing errors, said Joyce Marter, an author, national speaker and licensed psychotherapist in Cape Coral, Florida.

This habit could also create cognitive overload in our brains, leading to anxiety and frustration, said Oshin Vartanian, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

study he published last fall found that, during an experiment that simulated the activities performed by aircraft pilots, people who multitasked tended to show more signs of anxiety and frustration after the task was over than single-tasking people.

To “cultivate presence” (in other words, to be present and in the moment), Marter suggests journalists incorporate into their routines mindfulness habits like starting the day with a morning “intention,” checking emails only at specific times and turning off notifications while writing a story “so that your brain isn’t bombarded with other thoughts.”

She also recommends knowing your limits and setting boundaries with work, like not checking text messages or emails after a certain hour. “If you don’t take care of yourself, even if you are the best journalist in the world, you’re not going to perform well,” she said.

Journalists cannot do a good job if they live in isolation. To get story ideas, develop a critical eye and write about different issues in the world, they need hobbies and a social life, including friendships with people who (gasp!) aren’t journalists.

Rachel Fobar, a staff writer at National Geographic, said informal chats can be a good source of story ideas. “I try to always have my journalist brain on even if I’m talking to my friends and family,” she said.

Vartanian said we belong to different “tribes”: work colleagues, religious groups, family members, close friends and sports organizations. Spend more time with all of them.

You don’t know what your next job will be, if you will love it, if people will be nice to you or how many stories you will publish.

Uncertainty can cause anxiety and, to overcome it, you can use a mindfulness strategy called “detachment.” Focus on the present moment “instead of ruminating or second-guessing the past or worrying about the uncertainty of the future,” Marter said.

Vartanian also recommends focusing on what you can do in the present. For a journalist, it might mean deciding what topics you want to monitor, creating a strategy to keep track of them, cultivating mentors and developing skills.

Reed decided to learn the basics of social media management, search engine optimization and WordPress.

“You don’t need to be a master,” she said. But be open to learning new skills, considering how fast media jobs can change.

If you feel stuck, take a break.

According to another study by Vartanian, every creative process has four stages: preparation, incubation, insight and verification.

The incubation stage starts after you identify the problem you need to solve (your idea, your thesis). During this phase, being away from the story can help.

“Just because you’re not thinking about it directly it doesn’t mean that your mind isn’t processing it on some different level,” said Vartanian. “It’s like massaging your ideas, and they become better over time.”

The incubation stage ends with a moment of insight: Keeping a distance from the story for a while “allows things that initially seemed irrelevant to the problem to come into your focus of attention,” Vartanian said. “And if you grab them, that could be the building blocks for the solution.”

Decide which publications you want to read daily and how much time you will spend with each one.

Culture writer Hannah Jackson checks multiple pop culture outlets every day since it offers her “a mental framework” whenever she is pitching stories as a freelance culture writer. “I prioritize the publications I admire and have a relationship with editors,” she said.

Fobar also established her system. But unlike Jackson, she is a staff writer at National Geographic and has a defined beat, so she reads more specialized publications and scientific studies.

Dore said it took her a long time to learn that she could get better quotes by simply listening to her interviewees.

Her advice: Ask the first couple of questions, and then be quiet. “Mute yourself during interviews,” she said. “If you shut up, you get so much more from the other person.”

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